For the last month or two I’ve been slowly making my way through the book of Acts on a self-study. Basically I wanted to re-read the book because I’m at the point in my life, spiritually and mentally, where reading the Bible is no longer a chore or obligation, but something I genuinely enjoy and want to do. I’m particularly interested in the parts where we get an idea of how early Christians lived out their faith, understood and appreciated God’s grace, and managed to grow in the face of extreme persecution and immorality. This morning I was in chapter 16 and read I a story I’ve heard in church a dozen times before, that of Paul and Silas in a Philippine prison.
To give you some context, Paul and Silas were on a mission to reach the Greeks and other non-Jewish people called Gentiles with the gospel message. While in a Greek city called Philippi, they came across a demon-possessed slave girl whose owners used her to predict the future. This particular girl, who was entirely controlled by this demon spirit, followed Paul and Silas shouting about how the men were servants of the Lord and were preaching about how to be saved. We don’t know much else about the slave girl, but we do know that after a few days of this girl following them around shouting, Paul commanded the demon to come out of the girl. It did, the girl could no longer tell the future, and her owners lost their “business.” Consequently the owners were very upset with Paul and Silas, framed them as anarchists, got them stripped naked, beaten, and severely flogged in public, and then thrown into a dungeon and put into stocks. To say that it was a bad day for the two would be an understatement.
Paul and Silas, obviously were in bad shape. They were probably borderline hypothermic from a lack of clothing, they had deep wounds that were festering, probably had some broken bones or at least damaged body parts, and they were stuck in a smelly, disgusting, germ-infested prison cell. Basically death was breathing down their necks. Yet, in this dark moment, we learn from the story that Paul and Silas were spending the night fervent prayer and signing hymns. Now I know the tendency we have is to read a Bible story and think, “of course, they were praying, that’s what Bible characters do!” However, let’s think this through. Paul and Silas were human just like us. They felt pain and were just as, if not more, susceptible to things like disease and infection that we are. Now if we were really honest with ourselves, how would we do in this situation? If it were me, I probably would be screaming from the pain of my injuries and terrified at what might await me in the minutes and hours ahead. There’s nothing that says that kind of thinking didn’t creep into the minds of Paul and Silas either. It’s entirely possible that they were thinking that this might be it for them. But that’s where this story really gets interesting.
It the midst of this horrible situation the men are faced with, a massive earthquake strikes Philippi. Now the Bible doesn’t say whether this earthquake came as a result of Paul and Silas’s prayers or that it was just a random occurrence. I will note that there are many Christians who automatically assume that God caused the earthquake, but unfortunately that’s not what the Bible states. Generally speaking violent earthquakes are deadly and are not something that I feel comfortable saying are sent by God. Nevertheless, the Bible says that it was so violent that the prison doors were thrown open and the chains of every prisoner were loosened to the point where they could have escaped. Thinking that everyone did escape the jailer was overwhelmed and resolved to commit suicide. For whatever the reason, all of the prisoners stayed and Paul and Silas stopped the jailer from taking his life.
Being faced with one’s own mortality has led to a salvation experience for many and the jailer was no different. He recognized that Paul and Silas had a message that was so powerful and so different from anything he’d ever heard or experienced before that he begged the men to tell him what he had to do to be saved. That became Paul and Silas’s ticket out of jail (and to some medical care) and they went home with the jailer. The jailer fed them, cleaned them up, attended to their wounds and Paul and Silas led the jailer and his entire family to Christ. How’s that for living with mission?
The thing that strikes me about this story is that Paul and Silas could have been completely fixated on the magnitude of their circumstances. Instead, they chose to use their time of suffering as an opportunity to pray and worship. Furthermore, when someone else was in a deadly situation of their own, as the suicidal jailer was, they took it as an opportunity to minister and share the gospel message. I don’t know about you, but I find this very convicting. I hate to say it, but there are a lot of times where I become preoccupied with my suffering rather than turning to prayer and worship. In those moments, I can’t say that I’m particularly focused on the well-being of others around me either. Now, if you’re in the same boat as me, don’t mistake what I just said to mean that I’m dogging on you. Paul and Silas endured years of hardship and persecution to develop the faith shown in this story. While it may be impossible to replicate those kinds of experiences, here’s what I think we can take away from this story. Paul and Silas, both understood the magnitude of what they had been given in grace through the shedding of Christ’s innocent blood. Consequently, they both knew that regardless of their present circumstances, their eternities were safe thanks to an act that came to them undeservedly. This produced the joy that we see lived out in the midst of suffering. That same joy is something that we too experience when we’re fixated on the cross rather than our struggles. It might not feel like it sometimes, but the reality is that by the power of God’s grace, we too can have the same dedication to prayer and worship and the same intentionality around people who suffer that Paul and Silas did in this story.